This is the story of a significant part of the life of James Sinclair of Furnace in Mid Argyll.
Like many men of his generation, Jimmy went to war with schoolmates and other young men from the area, a high proportion of whom died in action. Most served in the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and were involved with the battalion in the catastrophe that befell the 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery-en-Caux in June 1940. Jimmy’s reflections on that experience (as on everything else) were and remain objective and wise. He was embarrassed by this description, but it would be hard to find anyone who knew him who would not agree with it.
Since this story was written James Sinclair has died but this story, told in his own words, keeps him alive in the present, which is where he belongs.
We published this some years ago but noticed that it was a victim of material lost a year ago when we had to move For Argyll to a new host with fast expansion capability to handle our growing audience.
It is a story worth reading in its own right and we are re-publishing it today since it is particularly appropriate at a time when the Argylls, with whom Jimmy Sinclair served, are under very real threat of being shelved. (Certain threat to survival of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.)
- Going to war
- To Dunoon and Aldershot – on the way to war
- To France for the real thing
- Taken prisoner – the end of my war
- To Camp 1401 at Bleicherode
- 1940 – 1945: At the Bad Sulza salt mines as POW No 124
- Life as a POW
- Conditions in the camp
- Red Cross parcels and escape attempts
- Communications with home
- Endgame: Out of the camp
- Home again
- School mates who also went to war
- Digesting the experience
- The end of the story
Going to War
Hore Belisha (British Secretary of State for War 1937-40) decided in the Spring of 1939 that all young men over eighteen would do a year in the armed services. There was a Major in the Territorials in Lochgilphead who was having trouble recruiting for the ‘Terries’ and he did a deal with eight or nine of us in the area.
The Drill Hall then was where McCheyne’s coal store is now and the Major said that if we all joined the ‘Terries’ rather than the Militia he would organise for us to do up the Drill Hall for the village. The old Rechabite Hall (now the Village Hall) was too small, really.
We agreed and the deal was done. The joke was that this was 1939 and before we got anywhere near the Drill Hall, war was declared and off we went.
When we joined the Territorials, our first camp – the 8th Argylls – was at Dreghorn near Edimburgh. It was under canvas and although it was the summer I remember some night exercises when it rained all night long and we got a good soaking.
We came back home from camp in August and abut four or five weeks later war was declared. The Sergeant came and told us to get down to Lochgilphead to collect our kit – our guns were in secure storage there – and be ready to move out.
To Dunoon and Aldershot – on the way to war
Men from Lochgilphead and Islay formed ‘A Company’ of the 8th Battalion of the Argylls (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). We were really half a company each. Campbeltown was ‘B Company’, Oban and Mull were ‘C Company’ and Dunoon was ‘D Company’.
We were assembled at the Drill Hall in Lochgilphead, along with reservists and some militia who had no regiment to join. The idea was for us to march to Ardrishaig where we would board the boat for camp at Dunoon. But there was a submarine scare in the Loch (Loch Fyne) and the boat wouldn’t come up that far. So we were put onto buses and taken to Tarbert to board at the East Loch.
The Islay men had come over to the West Loch and had got themselves to the East Loch so we were embarked together – on the ‘Loch Fyne’ – for camp in the old Convalescent Hone at Dunoon.
We were there until the New Year. Then the whole Battalion was transferred to Aldershot. We were a kilted regiment and it was at Aldershot that we were first given battledress. This was a bit of a relief really. Getting yourself ready in the morning was a lot quicker – the kilt needed the special leg dressings and the jacket had the brass buttons to be cleaned.
We were moved fairly quickly out to Bordon, eight or nine miles from Aldershot and based there until April. And then it was off to France.
(My younger brother, Sandy – Alexander McKellar Sinclair – was also in the war and also survived. He was in the Fleet Air Arm and was on the HMS Indefatigable, in the Japanese War.)
To France – for the real thing
In April we were taken from Bordon to Southampton and were embarked for France in the ‘Duchess of Vienna’. We boarded, left the pier and then had to anchor in the Solent to wait for Cruiser escort across the Channel. The trip took an hour and a half or two hours. It was a miserable night and a lot of the men were very sick.
We docked at the pier at Le Havre and were put on buses for Bolbec, to the north east of Le Havre. When we got there we were taken off the transports and the battalions were dispersed to villages around the area – mostly billeted in evacuated farm buildings.
From there we were taken to Sainghainweppe, north east of LIlle in the Pas de Calais. This was up at the Belgian border and we were set to dig tank traps, partly as an exercise and partly as part of a defence plan. In the end, the Germans came through at a different place anyway.
At the same tine as this digging, we were being given small arms training, including Bren guns and LMGs (Light Machine Guns). We didn’t have any heavy Machine guns, although the battalion did have the Vickers Watercooled Machine Gun. We didn’t have sights on the guns so we used tracers as well as live rounds, loading tracer as every fifth shot in the Bren magazine. This let us see our line of shot while we were firing.
The people in Sainghainweppe were nice – friendly – but we were moved on to Merville, where the canal runs into the sea. We weren’t there for long before the whole Division (the Highland Division) was moved to Kadange, near Metz, at the French border.
The whole Division wasn’t based there at the same time, though. There were three brigades: 154 Brigade, which was the 7th Argylls, the 8th Argylls and the 1st Black Watch; 153 Brigade, which was two battalions of the Camerons and one of the Seaforths; and 152 Brigade, which was two battalions of the Seaforths and one of the Camerons. These three brigades made up the 51st Highland) Division. I was in 154 Brigade and we were based around the village of Beezing, in an area of beech wood. From there we could actually see the lights of Saarbrucken Airport, across the border in Germany.
What happened with the Division there was a sort of rota where one Brigade would be in the Kadange area, in training; one would be at the front at the Maginot line (which ran diagonally from north east of Kadange away to the south east; and one would be at the Receuil Line, in reserve and ready to be moved up to the front if there was an attack. We were moved on foot between these locations, on night marches, bivouacking on the long march from Kadange to the Receuil. The Receuil Line was within two hours march of the Maginot Line. As it happened, the Germans never attacked the Maginot Line at all.
I had done two rotations of these duties when the Germans attacked through the Ardennes. We were then entrained for the French coast, not through Paris but to the south of it and out towards Le Havre and Dieppe. We were detrained in that area and transported north on buses to the Somme. The buses took us as far as St Valery-en-Caux and then we marched to our final positions.
(When we were marching on the road we were passed by a truck driven by my cousin Alastair Crawford. He waved at me. I never saw him again. When I came home afterwards I discovered that he had been killed in another botched job at Anzio.)
I was at St Valery Sur Somme. The 8th Battalion of the Argylls was the furthest to the coast of the whole Brigade. Our job was to stop the Germans crossing the Somme. But they were through already and had a bridgehead. It was a bit of a mess.
The 51st Highland Division was by then under French command – De Gaulle was in the area with the best of the French tanks. My company – ‘A Company’ – was lying at an outpost at Salanelle and this was where I was taken prisoner, on 6th June 1940. The Germans got the rest of the Highland Division at St Valery-en-Caux. (The disastrous attack on the 51st Highland Division at St Valery-en-Caux is one of the epics of the ill-fated French campaign of 1940.)
Taken prisoner – the end of my war
There are three Platoons in a Company. ‘A Company’ had the 7th, 8th and 9th Platoons. I was in 7th Platoon which was divided into three sections of nine men each. I was in charge of one section,. Another Furnace man, Robert Campbell, was in charge of a second; and an Islay man, Calum (Cally) Smith was in charge of the third.
Salanelle was a big sugar beet area. This was in June and we were in a empty sugar beet put which we were using as a trench. The land was like the valley here in Furnace really – flat with bunches of trees.
Our three sections were in positions around a crossroads. He main road through was sunk below the banks we were behind so it was hard for us to see what was coming down the road.
My section was dug in at the cross roads near a beech tree. Cally’s was up the road, not dug in but taking cover behind another big beech. Robert’s was on the other side of the crossroads from me.
We could see the Germans approaching, shooting at us from the banks on the other side of the main road from where Cally’s section was. They knew where we were because they’d had the spotter plane up. Cally’s section was engaging them. The Germans mortared us. The stuff thrown in our direction fell short and we had the earth thrown up from the explosions flying over our heads. But they hit Robert’s section full on. We never saw any of them again. Any who survived the explosions would have been cut down by machine gun fire.
(Robert’s name is on the War Memorial in the village – and his two brothers who were also in the war. Donald was wounded in 1944 and Billy, who was in a tank battalion and got through the main war safely, was killed in a tank accident in Greece in 194. What a way to be going on.)
Anyway, I went out to have a look over the bank to see where the Germans had got to. What I saw was three Germans in the road below me and one of them saw me at the same time. He threw a stick grenade at me –what we called a ‘potato champer’. It went over my head and landed in the road behind me. I was hit by a piece of shrapnel below the knee in the right leg, but it wasn’t much.
They began to shout to others behind them and I saw two tanks coming down the sunken road. (The German tanks were far better than anything the French or ourselves had. We had the small Whippet Tank, which was quick enough but only carried a .505 gun, one up from a .303 bore rifle and the same gun that was mounted in the fighter aircraft. It could take out a motorcycle if you hit it, but it couldn’t pierce armour. I heard it was OK in the desert but it was no use around here.)
There was clearly nothing we could do so I shouted to my men to come out. We only had smoke mortars, no explosives and only three inch mortars, not the five inch ones. They broke our guns against tree trunks and made us run up the road towards where Cally’s section was and they then took them prisoner too. Cally and I both lost three men from our sections and Cally lost an eye.
We’d been sent too far forward at Salanelle, really. I think our Platoon Sergeant, Donald MacDonald from Bellanoch, was probably on his way to tell us to come back when he was hit. He was ‘A’ Company’s first casualty. That was a sobering moment. I went to his body to recover his papers and then we brought him in. He’s buried out there now.
There was one Officer per Platoon and one Platoon Sergeant. Our Platoon Commander was Archie Kenneth from Stronachulain near Ardrishaig. Our three sections had been sent too far forward and he must have seen what was happening to us. Anyway, he got the rest of the men into the truck and made for safety to Le Havre. They must have got on just about the last boat out – but they did get home.
Our ‘A Company’ Commander was Captain John MacDonald from Tayinloan (his family are still there – they have the escargot farm there now). Captain MacDonald survived but lost a leg. I didn’t know either of these things until afterwards, of course. My Mother wrote me letters but she couldn’t say anything like this because of the censorship.
Of the original eight or nine of us from Furnace and Minard who joined the Territorials before the war in 1939, only four survived the war. Beaton, Peter Clarke, myself and Peter Leishman, who was killed shortly afterwards in a road accident on Loch Lomondside. I’m the only one left now. And the Drill Hall never did get done up.
(Editor’s Note: In the light of Jimmy Sinclair’s recorded experiences, it is interesting to note the remarks of Pete Gill, a military historian writing about the destruction in a single day of the British 12th Division, three weeks before the disaster t the 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery-en-Caux. Gill writes: “12th (Eastern) Division was one formation called into service by Hore Belisha’s doubling of the Territorial Army in the Spring of 1939, a political gesture carried out without consulting the Chiefs of Staff and which resulted in raising large numbers of volunteers for whom no arms could be provided. Nor in the event could they be trained, since when war was declared they were dispersed in detachments seldom more than a company strong, to guard vulnerable points”.)
To Camp 1401 at Bleicherode
We were put in a half-track and taken back across the river. The Germans were expecting our side to counter attack but that was never going to happen. They hadn’t realised the position we were in.
Then we were taken in stages to the Rhine. By then there were a lot of prisoners and we were all embarked in barges and moved up the Rhine for over a day to Emmerlich – in the same area as Arnhem. where the Paras went in.
From Emmerlich we were taken by train for two days – in carriages labelled for ’30 Men or 8 Horses’ – to Bad Sulza, north east of Weimar. This was the HQ of Stalag 9C, my POW camp and was quite near Nordhausen where the Vi and V2 rocket factory was.
Bad Sulza was a salt mining and spa area. We were collected there, counted, given our POW numbers – I was No 124 – and then broken up into work camps. Mine was Camp 1401 out at Bleicherode.
1940 – 1945: At the Bad Sulza salt mines as POW No 124
We arrived at Camp 1401, Bleicherode Kaliwerk, in July (1940), off the train from Bad Sulza and were taken to the camp – about a mile and a half from the station. We were in a three storey brick house, just outside the salt works boundary – a building which had been prepared for workers but probably had had washing facilities added to cope with the numbers expected once it was to become a prisoner-of-war camp.
We were divided into squads, each of which was detailed to different jobs. There were the ‘grubers’ – miners – who went down the salt mines with the Germans. Anybody nervous about going down the mines wasn’t made to do it but a lot of our lads had been in the Scottish coal mines and were quite happy to go down. If you could manage it, it was the best place to be in the winter because it was warmer down there.
The salt came up and then was crushed, mixed with water, left in the saltpans, crystallized there and then had the water pumped off, leaving the wet crystals.
These were the jobs for the loading squad – surface boys who went into the saltpans and loaded the wet crystals onto the bogeys which ran around on a funicular rail above them. Their feet were often in a terrible state because standing for hours in the wet salt made the flesh raw. If they complained, they were given a solution to bathe their feet in and not made to work until they were healed – about a week.
The bogeys full of the wet salt were then driven into heating sheds where the salt was dried. Then it went into a big silo where another squad put it into paper bags – like cement bags – and loaded it onto trains. It was called ‘Kali’ and exported all over Europe and was used as fertiliser.
My work squad was the Machine Betreib – repainting machines down the mines and looking after the works railway. The main line passed half a mile from the works. The wagons would come in loaded with coal and go out loaded with Kali. The coal was brown lignite which was hard to burn and had to be mixed with ‘cokes’ – coal which had had the oil extracted from it. It was dangerously hot but it had to be added to make the lignite burn at all.
Once we were marched to another village about three miles away – to dig snow to keep the road open. It was the most miserable day of my time at the camp – winter cold, a sunken road you couldn’t get the snow out of and a wind that blew it back in your face anyway. And we worked standing knee deep in the stuff. The funny thing was that our feet were better off that you’d think. We had the wooden sabots, like clogs, with cotton linings and they were really quite warm. The wooden boots were hard to get used to at first but eventually we could shuffle around at a fair speed – but they were far better than the hob-nailed boots in the salt works. With them the nails just rotted and the boots fell apart.
Life as a POW
There were men from all over the place in the camp – not just other British regiments like the West Kents but Upper Silesians and Poles too.
We could never work out which side the Upper Silesians were really on but whatever side won the war they were going to be OK. The Germans treated them as their own and the Allies would have accepted them as friendly. We just kept clear of them. Safer.
The Poles were different. They were POWs but they had a lot more freedom than us. They worked on farms outside works and came and went. They were always the ones who managed to listen to the radio. A lot of it was propaganda of course but they could always pick up bits and pieces of news that helped us get some idea what was gong on in the war. Passing on this information was a bit on the risky side. If you were caught doing it – and particularly if you were passing on information detrimental to the German side, you’d have been shot for sedition.
Mind you, although we had our own lavatories, there was nothing to stop us using the Germans’ washroom. I used to do that. It was great and warm, not like the cold in our place. But there was a big war map on the wall you walked past on the way and it changed to show what was gong on, where the actions were and what was won and lost. I used to take a good look at this so I always had a fair idea of developments. Sometimes I’d be on my way in when an officer would come out and he’d just nod and walk on. They must have known we were taking in what we could from the map.
Sometimes there was a sort of camp newspaper – all German propaganda of course, but these still gave us some basic information that helped. I remember they always ended with the German words for ‘the war continues’.
We were billeted in flats of about thirty men, in bunks, with a stove in the middle of each room. There was a daily coke detail. We had as much as we wanted. We got the broken briquettes from the factory. This made a big difference.
We were locked in at a certain time each night and they’d put a barrel as a night latrine on the stairs on each floor. The men used to fill them until they flooded the stairs so they ended up putting two out – and there was always a detail in the mornings to empty the things and clean the stairs. Not everybody’s favourite duty.
The food was OK. We got a bowl of soup a day and it was quite good (except once when they made a Bortsch, the beetroot soup – it was horrible), some pumpernickel bread, a bit of sausage, maybe liverwurst and ersatz coffee. I really got to like the liverwurst and specially the smoked sausage. I used to be able to get it in Lewis’s Polytechnic on Argyll St in Glasgow who imported the real thing. But when that shut down you could only get our own home produced version which doesn’t taste the same at all. The ersatz coffee tasted OK but it drove you to the latrines in pretty short order. It just seemed to hit the accelerator pedal on urine production.
Conditions in the Camp
We were treated quite well, really. Many of the Germans were decent men and they mostly did the same work as ourselves.
The guards kept changing. They got older as time went on – the younger men were needed to fight – and the older ones were better to us. The worst ones we had were the first ones – they were young and cocky. At that stage of the war they were very arrogant and they were pretty severe on us.
If you were sick the camp doctor saw you, prescribed something and would either sign you as fit to work or sign you off for a couple of days. He was OK. Our own pipers always carried the First Aid supplies so they were also our medics.
We had straw palliases to sleep on. They were on the hard side but you could sleep well enough. The worst thing was the bed bugs they seemed to attract. You were always having to check and turn over the mattress to get them out.
Red Cross parcels and escape attempts
For the first year there were no Red Cross Parcels but then they started to arrive – about once a fortnight on average. We were lucky here to be prisoners of the Germans because they supported the Red Cross. The Japanese didn’t.
When there were plenty of parcels, each man got one to himself. A first you kept them beside your bunk and dipped in as you wanted.
Then the Germans caught a few escapees and realised that men planning an escape were always hoarding tins of food. So then, when the parcels came, you got yours and then had to hand it straight back t them. They stored them all in a sort of warehouse, each man’s in its own place on the shelves they brought in the joiners to put up. You were then brought in, took out what you wanted, signed for it and they burst it open for you so that it couldn’t be hoarded.
Escape was really a daft idea. We were well inside Germany and it would have been a long haul out of it. Even to try for it you’d have needed to speak good German and you’d have had to have two main things – German money and plenty of it (the money we had was ‘lagermoney’ not the real thing); and the right clothes – the silly caps, a dark jacket – you might have got away with khaki trousers. And you’d have needed lots of food and good boots. There were a few who kept planning it and the odd one tried it but there were no successful escapes from our camp.
If you stole anything or tried to escape, you were put on hard labour – breaking stones at a quarry and with very little food to keep you going. The boys that were sent there said it was really tough going.
Communications with home
When we arrived at the camp as POWs the first thing the Germans did was give us cards to write our home addresses on. These were posted but the first lot, including mine, never arrived.
Some of the men from ‘A Company’ who got out of Le Havre in tine – like Archie Kenneth’s truckload – had got home. Because he’d pulled them out when he saw what was happening to us, they didn’t know the end of it. They just knew they’d seen me in action before they left. The could see we were having a hard time of it, that was all. Then when the cards didn’t arrive, I was posted missing an that was all my family knew for around six months.
The then Duke of Argyll, Iain Campbell, (the 11th Duke and grandfather of the current 13th Duke) – who was in the 8th Battalion of the Argylls himself before he was transferred to Divisional HQ because he spoke French – had also been taken prisoner. He spent the same time as me as a POW. His second wife (second of four), an American, then got herself to Portugal, which was a good negotiating place between Germany and Britain. She set up an office there, liaising between the two sides to track down what had happened to the men of the 51st Highland Division. She had a vested interest of course, with her husband a prisoner, but she did a very useful thing for all of us and it was her who got the news of me to home – me and a lad from Srachur, McAllister.
I could write letters home and they could write to me. The Germans would give us one special sheet of paper a week. You put your POW Number, your Camp Number, the name and address of whoever you liked – but you couldn’t seal it. It had to go through the security check and they sealed it afterwards. Same thing from the home end, of course. Nobody could say much.
You could also get clothes parcels from home – basic things you needed, socks underwear etc. Sometimes they sent you chocolate and you felt bad about that because you knew how hard it must have been for them to save up the coupons for a bar for you.
I remember getting a letter from my Uncle, telling me about a great day when they went up to Loch Leacainn for a picnic. They’d made sandwiches and tea and carried it all up with them. It didn’t seem somehow like much to do with me just then, but I knew it was good for him to write it to me.
Endgame – Out of the Camp
At first, after what had happened to us in the 51st Division and what we had seen of our side and our supplies compared with what we saw the Germans had, none of us ever talked about what we thought but we all felt that it was hard at that time to see hw we could win the war. We didn’t think much about what this might mean for us. That wouldn’t have helped. You just got on with doing what you had to do at the time.
As tine went on though, the bits of news the Poles got from the radio – and my looks at the war map on the way to the Germans’ lavatories – let us see that things were changing.
We actually knew that the Germans were finished about two weeks before they told us we were moving out of the camp. We’d noticed a lot more aircraft activity from our boys – more frequent overflying and flying much lower. So they must have been pretty confident that there wasn’t much opposition. By then we were seeing almost no German fighters so it all added up to one picture of what was happening.
One day, in the first week of April 1945 (we’d been in the camp since July 1940) the Under Officer at the camp came in the morning – ‘Raus. Raus.’ He had an interpreter and just told us we were leaving the camp and that we were to gather up whatever we wanted to take with us. We were given one four-wheeled wagon pulled by a horse. He told us to take as many tins of food as we could carry and our best boots.
It was all marching. We had German guards with us all the time. They were afraid we’d run off and get arms somewhere and come back for them. We went first from Bleicherode to Nordhausen, then to Erfurt and to Bad Sulza. After that we stopped day marching. It was too dangerous. The British and the American aircraft were spotting men on the move – and so were the ground troops – and they had no idea who you were so they were likely to knock you off. We went on to marching at night and going into woodlands for rest during the day.
We went on to Eisenberg. It had just been raided by our bombers the night before we got there and it was in a bit of a state.
By now there were almost no Germans guards left with us. They’d been getting older as we went on, with any half-capable ones withdrawn to fight and many just scarpering.
We were a fluid group of 300 – 400 men. Finally, between Eisenberg and Plauen, in the outbuildings of a farm, the Americans got us. When we saw their tanks come into the village, we made ourselves known to them. Our NCOs suddenly began asserting their authority, actingf as spokesmen and mustering the group. An American officer said that any of us were free to shoot at any Germans we liked – but nobody did.
American lorries came up and took us to a captured airfield at Erfurt and we were flown in Dakotas to Brussels where we were deloused, had our names and numbers checked – all the usual stuff. Then we were flown in stripped-out Wellington Bombers to Aylesbury, near London.
At Aylesbury we were given new kit and our travel passes and sent straight home for around six weeks. I was home on 6th May and the end of the war was two days later on 8th May.
Before we’d left Aylesbury we were also given a date and place to report back to after this. It was a camp in Yorkshire. From there we were moved about a fair bit, including down to Devon and finally to camp in Creiff. We were demobbed from there.
Much later on – it was the first holiday Helen and I went on – we went to Berlin and then to Potsdam, to see where the armistice was signed. When we were there I was telling one of the Germans I met abut being at Bad Sulza and he immediately said: ‘Ah, Kaliwerk’. He knew all about the salt mines.
Schoolmates who also went to war
I’m thinking now of the boys of my age who served during the war and were killed in it or carried on in the services afterwards.
- John MacArthur – stayed in the Navy until 1950.
- John Brown – stayed in the Army and was killed in Germany in 1954.
- Robert Campbell – was in 7th Platoon of ‘A Company’ of the 8th Argylls with me and was killed on 6th June 1940 in the action in which I was taken prisoner.
- Billy Campbell – Robert’s younger brother who was in the tank division and was killed in a tank accident in Greece in 1945.
- Donald Campbell – Robert’ older brother, served in the Army and was wounded in 1944.
- Frank Nicol – was in the RAF and was demobbed in 1945.
- Donald MacMillan – was in the Army and was drowned on the Lancastria in 1940
- John McNab – was in the army and taken prisoner in 1940.
- Peter Drew – was in the Army and was killed in Africa.
- Peter Leishman – was in the Army, demobbed in 1946 and shortly afterwards was killed in a road accident on Loch Lomondside when someone giving him a lift crashed the vehicle.
- Ian Stewart – was in the RAF and was demobbed in 1946.
Digesting the experience
When I came back home one of the first things I did was to go to the Garage and buy a Road Map of Europe. I was able to use it to track down all the places I’d been in and trace my footprints, in a way.
I still have that Map Book and I know, without looking at the page, exactly where each place is and how it relates to the other places I was taken.
The end of the story
This story was written down in the Autumn of 2000. Jimmy Sinclair died on 3rd March 2004 and was buried at Kilevin Cemetery between Furnace and Crarae on 7th March 2004. The roads and fields around Cumlodden Church were full of the cars of everyone who wanted to be there to pay tribute to a man who had touched so many lives in so many different ways.
When I was preparing to work on Jimmy’s story I expected him to tell me a series of anecdotes in whatever order they occurred to him. This would have taken a lot of time to sort out into a coherent order and I was quite ready for that. I couldn’t have been more wrong. As soon as we started talking, out came his narrative, already focused, analysed and in clear chronological order.
This hadn’t happened all at once. He must have been working away inside his head for years, chewing at the raw material of his wartime experience – trying to come to terms with it, taking charge of it, putting a shape on it.
He was twenty-one when he was taken prisoner. He was eighty-one when he told me about it. One cannot look at his command of detail, his grasp of the total picture he was part of and his objective distance from it without amazement.
Some people are victims of their experience. Jimmy was master of his. He had mapped it, digested it, learned from it, made it his own and used it to found the solid human values he lived by for the rest of his life.
The photographs accompanying this article show, from the top:
- Jimmy Sinclair, second left, on a POW postcard sent to his family with no message, just his POW number – 124 and the Camp number – 1401 at Stalag 1XC.
- The commemorative plaque on Furnace War Memorial, for those killed in WW2
- At Bad Sulza
- Jimmy Sinclair (left)
- POWs – with a nominal Guard – marking out the ad hoc sports pitch they were allowed to create – the men of the Argylls played shinty and were allowed to go into the forest to cut wood for shinty sticks.
- A POW burial at Bad Sulza.
- Jimmy Sinclair. back home, much later.